Having taken a short, day long vacation from vacationing in the Himalayas for some adventure, we were all set to commence the next round. The final frontier. Pangarchulla. Without Harshal, the financial acumen of the group had reduced to half, which is a euphemistic way of saying that Grond’s financial acumen was equal to the rest of the group’s financial acumen put together.
We drove to Dhak (about 20 mins from Joshimath). The goal of day 9 was to cover about 12 kms and reach the base Pangarchulla base camp. The journey seemed quite tractable. We passed through a village called Togasi, which offered a bird’s eye view of Tapovan and Purva Donagiri peaks.
At that point, the peak we should have been focusing on, namely Pangarchulla, appeared to be of a very low IQ (Instagram Quotient) amidst all the scenery. It would have been like Instagramming curd rice in a variegated continental spread. We had lunch at a small stream running through rocks. The water was cool and we used the new-found vast thermodynamic heat sink to chill the plastic can in which we stored our orange juice for lunch. After lunch, we crossed a forest (Phulara range). We reached the base camp around 3:30 p.m. After stretching, we realized that we were suddenly being ‘dragged’ into some kind of Bernoulli’s fluid dynamics experiment inside the placid valley. We felt a sudden drop in temperature followed by a significant lift force that not only put us at the risk of taking a short flight, but given the vectorial disposition of the forces acting on us, they would propel us straight towards the tents meant to be used as toilets. In summary, it got windy as hell and we could have been in deep shit.
After dinner, Rajuji briefed us about the following day. We’d have to leave pretty early, climb Pangarchulla in about 4 hours, take a break on our way back and head back to base camp in another 3-4 hours. Even if we were a bit leisurely with our approach. But this is what was going through our minds as he spoke:
I don’t think it was arrogance. Just that nobody really had a clue what was about to hit us on the next day. And oh, they made exquisite Momos! There was a bonfire outside the common tent and it was much needed. If we had a cannibal among us, (s)he’d be salivating, for we were about a dozen humans roasting themselves in a fire, turning around like a rotisserie to ensure even cooking. It got really windy during night and we had to endure the coldest night (-10C with windchill) of the trek.
Day 10. D-Day: We woke up and left well before sunrise after grabbing some breakfast. This was the first time we had trekked with our night lights on. To add to the challenge, the first leg was a tough climb as visibility was limited and we had to negotiate a fairly steep, rocky terrain. This lasted for the ~ 45 mins. Then, dawn broke. We saw the majestic Neelkanth mountain bathed in sunlight in the most spectacular fashion. It was like someone had poured molten metal all over it.
The next phase was fairly straightforward. Walking on somewhat flat, meadow-like terrain. At this point, another interesting event transpired. I guess I hadn’t had a good filter coffee during this journey so maybe I was a bit out of my element, but for some unfathomable reason, I asked Rajuji at what percentage of his REAL speed was he walking with us. But I didn’t plug my oral orifice just there. I had the audacity to ask him to show me a sample of his true speed. Even before I could finish (I think the word sample was the trigger), he was already a parsec ahead of me. If only a sustainable fire had come out of his derriere, we could all have witnessed the launch of another Mangalyaan (could also be called PangarYaan) right there. Upon triangulating his final coordinates and plotting it mentally with respect to his initial location prior to him hitting the escape velocity button, and approximating the time taken to traverse the displacement, I arrived at the following conclusion:
It was all fun and games until now. We stopped and took several pictures every now and then, took breaks, refreshed ourselves and walked at a somewhat leisurely pace. The target was looking quite cute. It seemed well within our grasp.
A few kilometers on frosted meadows later, we took a break on a seemingly small bed of rocks as Rajuji asked us to get some wind before the final stretch. Some decided to remove a layer or two of warm clothing, some drank their PowerAdes. I just wanted to chug along. As we started the final leg by taking a bit of a turn from the apparently cozy bed of rocks, we saw this:
Moraine and more moraine. Mohan talks about his experience with moraine here. This is when it really hit us. This was going to be excruciating. This was no longer a trek. There was no defined path after this point. 1000 meters of raw, hellacious, but most (painfully so) importantly, vertical climb ahead of us. We all realized what an expedition meant. At this point, Sriram and Arundhati decided to call it a day. It was quite sad as their resolve and spirit had lifted us throughout the journey. There was no choice for them but to wait right at the base of the moraine stretch and wait for Kalamji to come and get them. After a short while, Chuck and Paddy decided to join them. The dispiriting moraine had caused two more brave folks to call and end to their journey. I was actually surprised that Paddy had made that choice because it appeared to me that he was keeping a terrific rhythm and throughout the trip, he didn’t really show signs of extreme enervation. Same with Chuck. He had walked with us steadily throughout the journey. I guess it was going to be Mohan, I, Mahesh, SoBoD and Pun. Thankfully Kalamji had arrived by then (he was almost running on the moraine! I wasn’t sure if we weren’t with some kind of real life X-Men). Rajuji and I were in the front. Followed by Mo, Mahesh and SoBoD. Then Kalamji and Pun. A bit later, as we looked up, we were greeted by this:
It seemed that Nostradamus was right, the world had come to an end and it looked like some post apocalyptic, post nuclear annihilation of world junkyard. There was no escaping. We had already taken 4 hours (Rajuji had estimated that we’d CLIMB Pangarchulla in 4-4.5 hrs.). The picture depicts the two approaches to navigate this part. Either you climb straight ahead (shortest distance), which would mean that each step would be a climb on a rock, which would put a tremendous amount of stress on out thighs, knees and calves. Also, the snow on the rocks could be a bait for poor footing. Another option was to alternate between the soft grass (brown patches in the pic) and rocks. But this would mean a zigzag path and a substantial load on our energy reserves. At this point, nobody was sure how much they had left in their mental gas tanks. After a while, as we started the ascent, it got a bit foggy and we waited for Pun. 5 minutes. No sign of her. 10 minutes. Nothing. We had come to the conclusion that she had decided to stop. I should have asked Pun to imagine 4 rocks as some kind of animal and start petting them one at a time and keep moving. If that animal were a sheep, Pangarchulla alone would have put New Zealand to shame. But essentially, another blow dealt by the now gargantuan looking Pangarchulla. This peak wasn’t cute anymore. It demanded, no, commanded not just our respect, but any synergistic combination of any and every faculty left in us. It would be the four of us (Mohan, I, Mahesh and SoBoD) along with Rajuji. I realized that if I stood and waited with Rajuji for the remaining folks, I would get tired. This wasn’t about being overenthusiastic one bit anymore. But upon repeated reminders by Mo for me to slow down and keep Rajuji’s speed in check, it hit me that there would be no point in leaving the rest behind. We win as a team, we lose as a team. I climbed over a few rocks quickly and waited for the rest of the folks to join. We did this for a good 30-45 minutes. The peak looked within reach. When the peak was (what I thought) 50 meters (vertically) away, I asked Rajuji if that was it. Rajuji smiled. I was stunned. This meant some kind of surprise (and not the I was hoping for 80 marks but got 92 instead kind but probably the I thought I’d win at least a set but screw that, I got bageled in the tennis match kind) was in store. And there it was:
This was getting to be sheer cruelty. As I looked at this, I thought “has someone taken a road in Bangalore and erected it vertically here in the mountains??” I guess I was just thinking of asinine things like this, just to keep my mind from playing games with me. Rajuji gently whispered to me “I knew about this but didn’t tell anybody because you would be demotivated”. I realized I shouldn’t waste my energy in cursing but just swallow my emotions and focus. I remembered Mohan’s mantra “mind over body”. I kept telling myself “It’s never a question of if, but when”. At this point, I (think I) heard Mohan telling me he wouldn’t be able to do it. Or it was Mahesh. I’m not sure. But I yelled back “that is bullshit! Get up and we’re doing this together”. Apparently my little ‘pep talk’ worked because I could see them coming. It was clear that this climb was now more mental than physical. I asked Rajuji, who told me another 300 meters to go. It was about noon. We had already taken six and a half hours.
About 100 meters to go. Another thunderbolt. This ‘peak’ we were climbing was also a mirage. The closer we got, the farther Pangarchulla moved away from us. A glimmer of hope every 150 meters, only to be extinguished mercilessly by the moraine spewing leviathan. But thankfully Rajuji showed us a temple at a distance, assuring us that that was the peak. Same routine. We walked ahead and waited for the rest to join. 150 meters to go. Really. At the 50 meter mark, I got carried away. Rajuji had already reached the top. I couldn’t wait anymore and literally ran towards the peak. All this while, I (along with Rajuji) kept egging Mo, Mahesh and SoBoD by saying “just a little more, come on!” I decided to put an end to it. I reached the peak at 1:18 p.m. I yelled out of sheer euphoria! I guess Mo, SoBoD and Mahesh knew they were really close. They decided to hold hands and finish together. 1:20 p.m. Almost seven hours after we had started from the base camp. There we were. We did it! At the top of Pangarchulla. I was elated but at the same time I felt a bit humbled. We might have scaled Pangarchulla but it Pangarchulla that had pwned us in one sense. I wasn’t tired but I guess my mental tank had hit reserve. We all signed a Grand Adventures Banner and posed for a few pics. The victory seemed a bit Pyrrhic because it would have been great to have the rest of the gang at the top.
The weather changed suddenly. The sun disappeared behind the clouds and a huge gust of mist engulfed the mountains. The good part was it covered the seemingly endless ocean of moraine that was now beneath us but that would also mean we would have no clue when it would end…AGAIN! It was starting to get cold. We spent about 10 minutes at the peak, recharging ourselves. A word about SoBoD here. She wasn’t feeling particularly well and hadn’t eaten much, if any, since morning, For her to do it under such circumstances, she deserves an honorary Rajuji degree.
We started the descent after munching on some more Perk and bhujia. It seemed quite easy at first as we were revved up by our sense of accomplishment but it soon hit us that controlling our footing while rolling with gravity on rocks, coupled with snow was a herculean task. Since even typing the word moraine feels painful at this point, it suffices to say that we took another 3 hours to climb down that stretch. By the time we reached the base camp, it was nearly 6 p.m.
At the base camp, we were greeted cheerfully by the rest of the gang. It was great to know that they had reached safely. I don’t think anybody had the energy to stretch, including our guruji Mo. We were happy to be back. The weather was kinder (not as windy). We finished the day with another bonfire and beautiful renditions of Rafi and Kishore Kumar songs by Mo and Paddy.
Days 10 and 11
LOL what? There was more trekking left after Pangarchulla?? We left the base camp, traversed some meadow like things, some forest, reached Auli and drove to Joshimath. The highlight of the day (apart from sighting Nandadevi, the tallest peak entirely in India), was a highly stimulating discussion with Chuck on Nadir of 90s. We unearthed some true gems from the most prolific decade in Bollywood history. Bali Brahmbhatt’s Kook Kook Kooky, Govinda’s pop album (Kar ditti jaan), Baba Sehgal’s “Kapoorthala se aaya hoon”, Amitabh Bachchan’s pop album and Anu Malik ‘s pop albums dominated the proceedings. Pun coined Devang Patel the weird Al Yankovic of India After scaling peaks, we were now exploring abysses.
We ended the day by sleeping like a log at Joshimath. We drove to Rishikesh on the following day, the highlight of the day being stopping at Devprayag and collecting Gangajal right from the point where it originated.
We all left for our respective cities in the next 2-3 days.
2 weeks. Nearly 140 kms. 4800 meters. Twice. A trek and an expedition. Friends made. Fun. Adversities. Overcoming adversities with fun. I will never forget this experience. There are dozens of stories and tidbits bit I realize that this tetralogy (?!) has already exceeded the yield stress of most human minds so I’ll bring it to a halt here. Until the next trek, that is 🙂 As much as I’d have loved to pour concentrated sulfuric acid in the mouths of a particular mountain that called us on this trek, especially when we were stranded in moraine, I have to admit the veracity of the aphorism “The mountains are calling and I must go.”